Splay Anthem – Live (Plus- Follow up to Writing Assignment #6)

Friday night was spent at the de Young which is apparently doing their best to make a night at the museum an experience for everyone with what looked, felt and was dressed up like a rave.

Luckily, we were at the other side of the museum where the music of choice was the jazz instrumentation of Hafez Modirzadeh alongside selections from Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem, which I have heard great things about and seen on many a bookshelf for quite a long time but never got a chance to get to.

This reading was perfect in every way. Mackey got straight to business and delivered a seamless (no banter) set that started off with the “soon come” and ended with “the word kept coming up.” In between was a cyclical journey going back and forth between Mackey’s “We” (more on that in a sec) and their experience with place and how that translated into language. Mackey’s We could be either from “Egypt or Tennessee” but it didn’t matter since the “cement sky” they were under provided little or no fruit (“bread we broke with hammers”). From there the persistent question popped up: “What if am?” Not an examination of the self – as in What if I am? – but another examination of situation and whether the We was in danger (“gas, we’d sworn it was”) or out of danger (“singing, some called it”) and whether that even mattered at all (one of my favorite lines of the night: “that we were there, but not there, was no relief”).

Mackey then swept into a Biblical undertow (citing both “the apocryphal she” and “the he they sang of”) that brought us into a Babel-ish moment (where “translating the song” and “the motion of tones” was key) and then finally bringing it all together (“room and world meant the same,” a line I keep reading as room & word but that’s just me). Mind you, all this was only one movement from Splay Anthem.

Now, I could be off on some of these lines since they are all from my personal journal, which I was scribbling into all the way through, and I could be off on my interpretation, since this was the first time I have heard any of Mackey’s work, but this is what I picked up on this beautiful live reading. This just reinforces some of my thoughts on live reading and its affect on audience.


Hafez Modirzadeh
Originally uploaded by bjanepr

Modirzadeh’s music was spot on and blended perfectly, not only with Mackey’s poem but also his pauses.

The Q&A that followed was equal parts about process and mysticism, two terms that may be incompatible but both Mackey and Modirzadeh explained that the two do not have mutually exclusive.

“It has been a real challenge to be a person in love with language but on to the fact that language misleads us in many ways.”
— Mackey

“We are all in the state of becoming one another.”
— Modirzadeh

I was able to ask Mackey a little bit about his use of We and what of his relationship with the poetic “I”.


Nathaniel Mackey
Originally uploaded by bjanepr

“Reluctant” was his response when talking of the “I” and then he proceeded to explain how the We is his pronoun of choice and how it affected his work. “We spoken here. Aqui se habla we,” was how Mackey summed it up.

I love readings like this, where so much care goes into the poems, presentation and process to make it seem almost effortless but then to know that there is effort and that lesson effort can be extended from one artist to the next. Readings like this make me say “I want to know what that poet knows.” “I want to learn from this writer.” “Damn, I wish I wrote that.” And, even better yet, “You know what? I am going to try to write like that.”

I’ll end with a final quote from Modirzadeh and a poem (which is my response to Writing Assignment #5) celebrating the We.

“This is a continuation of the conversation we were having.”
— Modirzadeh

Poem was here. Can now be found in BorderSenses-Summer 2008.

Author: Oscar Bermeo

Born in Ecuador and raised in the Bronx, Oscar Bermeo is the author of the chapbooks Anywhere Avenue, Palimpsest, Heaven Below, and To the Break of Dawn. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.

2 thoughts on “Splay Anthem – Live (Plus- Follow up to Writing Assignment #6)”

  1. You’ve conveyed in your post what I think the event was for you: a seminal poetry reading that reminds you why you are excited and devoted to the art. I’ve only attended one reading, ever, where the poet accompanied by music thing worked. Gary Synder, back around 2000, spent months collaborating with local musicians from his region of California to do a performance of his Rivers and Mountains With End. He performed a portion of it at the Sacramento Poetry Center and it was breathtaking—the way the music was a complement to the poetry and the poetry was a complement to the music. Sounds like this experience at the de Young was that.

  2. god, i wish i had been there! it has been too long since i heard nate mackey read. it is a unique music — accompanied here by a unique music, apparently. : ) thanks for writing about it.

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